In an otherwise meticulous portrait of Al Gore in last Sunday's Post, the authors left out one word of description -- "uncool" -- which helps explain the best and worst of the candidate.
Like Gore, I was lucky enough to go to St. Albans School. He was three years older than I, but I remember him clearly -- making the announcements each day in the school's dark, wood-paneled lunchroom, known forbiddingly as the "Refectory." They were earnest admonitions about school events, delivered in that same half-a-speed-slow twang that has become so familiar to all of us.
Boys at 14 have a special eye for the talents and weaknesses of older boys. They are watching and studying -- trying to imagine themselves a few years older, taller, more confident. They're almost like teenage girls with a crush, in the way they select older boys as role models. And what every 14-year-old boy wants to be, now and forever, is "cool."
There's a picture that ran with the Post article, showing Al's class prank. From the look of the picture, they've had a few beers. Even Al has a slightly frothy look in his eye as he stands atop the pool table, near a roll of toilet paper that will soon be wrapped around something it shouldn't. But Gore isn't the cool guy in the picture -- not by miles. That person would be the tall, thin fellow standing in the center, his face almost blank with just a hint of a smirk showing through -- the ultimate prep school face.
Cool is the thing Al Gore wasn't. And isn't. It's what hurts him most -- that you could never imagine him sneaking a cigarette on the way into school, or wearing tassels on his loafers, or driving that GTO convertible and parking it at Hains Point with his date to "watch the submarine races."
Younger boys know that rules are baloney -- so they look up to the guy who's ready to break them for the sheer sport of it. That's why we fixate on heroes like James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause," or Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke" -- the young men who run at life with their heads, in a brave but futile attempt to change the system. They're cool, and we instinctively embrace them.
John F. Kennedy was the ultimate cool president. You can see it in the cut of his suit, the way he keeps his hand in the jacket pocket -- a habit he supposedly developed from hiding cigars so photographers wouldn't see. Way cool! Lyndon Johnson was a bad boy all the way -- just listen to him stroking folks on those tapes they play on C-SPAN radio and you know there wasn't a rule ever written he wouldn't have broken.
We had an interregnum of uncool presidents during the years that teenage America actually boiled over -- Richard Nixon, possibly the most uncool man who ever lived, followed by Gerald Ford and the extremely uncool preacher-in-training, Jimmy Carter. But there was a cool restoration, Republican version, with Ronald Reagan.
And then we elected and reelected the ultimate back-door man on the make, William Jefferson Clinton. For all the pieties expressed about Clinton's conduct, it's obvious that part of why the country sticks with him is that deep down, we like the naughty boys who break the rules -- so long as they're smart and can get away with it.
What about this year's other candidates: Where do they rank on the cool meter? All George W. Bush had as a young man was his coolness. He wore the tassel loafers, studied at the Cool Hand Luke school of rebellion, learned to stare at his shoes when people were talking about the important, boring stuff. Indeed, he didn't do much else besides being cool until he awoke in his early forties and realized he had an empty life.
Bill Bradley has a basketball player's indisputable cool. All that laid-back talk about the inner clock, and the sense of where you are on the court; that history of playing against big, tough black men and holding his own -- that's cool. And you have to credit any man who went on from playing against Dr. J to a seat on the Senate Finance Committee. But the thing with Bradley is, where's the hot? What does he really care about? What does he really know? I've talked with him off and on for nearly 20 years, and what drives him is still mysterious to me.
No man has changed less in 35 years than Al Gore. That's why all this talk about reinventing Gore, and moving the campaign to Tennessee, and the report from Iowa last weekend that he was finally "letting it all hang out," strike me as silly. I promise you, the man I watched make those worthy lunchtime announcements in the Refectory 35 years ago is the real Al Gore.
The handlers can restyle his hair, buy him those zippy blue shirts and make him run so many miles a day that he's as skinny as a rat on a treadmill. But they can't make him cool, because he is not, and never will be, a naughty boy.
Gore is a good boy. And perhaps he would also make a good president. Frankly, we may have had enough cool guys as president. They're narcissists: unfinished people who need something to complete them -- sex with interns, the cheer of the crowd, the titillation of power. Gore doesn't seem to need that. He's a sane, uncomplicated man. Looking at him, you feel a confidence that he wouldn't make big mistakes, that his greatest failing is that he would be boring.
Somehow, that has come to be Al Gore's liability, the fact that he's so uncool and reliable. But maybe that says more about us than him. Perhaps it's time to stop thinking about this presidential race as if we were 14-year-olds, and start thinking about who would make a good president. By that test, the Gore campaign may be a winner yet.